If Albanese exercises democracy and wisdom in the cabinet room, we will have the best government we can have - and nobody can hope for anything more than that
NOOSA - Yesterday’s man under pressure has survived to become today’s hero – and I’m going to explain why.
For many Australians, the Labor Party’s win in Saturday’s national election seemed an unlikely victory.
Throughout his period as opposition leader, Anthony (Albo) Albanese had sought to present a target so small that nobody could take clear aim at it.
He became an exponent of the art of avoiding being wedged on issues by the simple expedient of taking the side of the wedger.
He chose to be a politician who wanted policy in opposition to not become a point of attack, so he made policy thin, infrequent and largely unnoticed.
As a leader, Albanese preferred to hide in plain sight as a virtual unknown – this was a political strategy but it also perhaps disguised his lack of confidence against the bulldozing fulminations of the Pentecostal Mouth to whom, three years previously through Divine Intervention, God had given a nation to run.
Albanese managed all this feinting and dodging and got the top job. In fact, he quite overwhelmed Scott (Scomo) Morrison who had reckoned that his win in 2019 had been a miracle.
Scomo - the man who tried to be king, populist, pastor to the nation and man of the people - lost. Scomo, loser of a massive 19 seats and his prime ministerial office.
He lost these prizes at the hands of his people, including both Quiet and Noisy Australians - people who did not think him a wise, clever and photogenic chap so much as a boorish, divisive, loud-mouthed oaf who, for no good reason, was making their life much more difficult than it needed to be.
It’s arguable that a more inspirational leader than Albanese would have won the election in a landslide. Morrison left so much political and psychological room for his opponent that even Bill Hayden’s infamous drover’s dog (the one that could have beaten Malcolm Fraser) would have triumphed. But even predictable elections - which this wasn't - have complex dynamics and are difficult to win.
That said, Albanese now has to prove himself capable in sorting out the considerable mess, global and domestic, that Morrison has left behind. Not for the first time has Morrison exited a workplace leaving chaos in his wake.
High office changes people. Some it emboldens and builds. Others it shrinks and defeats. People like Morrison it excites and consumes. I'm guessing it will make Albanese confident and secure.
Even if he doesn’t fully rise to the office as a Hawke or Keating, it is my hope and expectation that he will be an effective chairman of cabinet – perhaps more facilitator and conciliator than heroic champion but certainly not the histrionic egotist we have so recently experienced.
If Albanese be a servant leader, I’m confident he has plentiful talent on his front bench to pull things into place and do some necessary building.
For this Labor cabinet is not ‘the same old crew again’. Sure Bill Shorten will be there (now less trusted than ever) but the new guard looks very good indeed. There are a number of absolute stars (who do not include the hapless deputy Richard Marles, who I expect at least to be genial and loyal).
There are 10 star players, the first five of whom are potential prime ministerial material: Katy Gallagher, Dr Jim Chalmers, Chris Bowen, Jason Clare, Penny Wong (PM material but doesn’t want the job), Mark Dreyfus QC, Linda Burney, Mark Butler, Ed Husic and Tony Burke.
If you don’t know them, do a search. You’ll find much of substance.
There are also 10 impressive B teamers, who shape up as much better than Morrison’s wayward, bumbling front bench. Tanya Plibersek (past her peak but still capable), Catherine King, Stephen Jones, Brendan O’Connor, Patrick Dodson, Dr Andrew Leigh, Michelle Rowland, Murray Watt, Julie Collins and Amanda Rishworth.
Albanese was lucky to lose Kristina Keneally, who he had parachuted into the once safe seat of Fowler and a community revolution that, because Keneally was an outsider, instead chose an independent of their own.
Albanese must have thought for some reason (possibly because KK told him so) that she would be a star. Instead she lost him a seat that may cost him a majority in his own right. There is a lesson there that political parties have been slow to learn.
However, Albanese was incredibly lucky in this election. He was lucky in his opponent, Scomo, who people had come to loathe. He was lucky in having the best front bench since the first Hawke ministry. He was lucky that the women nicknamed the Teal Independents (for their commonly adopted election colour) would emerge to rip the heart out of Liberal Party moderates (so-called) in a bounty of key and precious Liberal legacy seats. Who would have thought?
John Howard was fond of saying that “in the end, the mob works you out”. And the mob worked out Scomo. Was there a constituency he did not offend? Yes, just three.
The resource giants sucking out tax-free minerals, big corporates that donated in return for contracts, and global consultancies purporting to know better than a Public Service that has delivered so much for so many governments over so many years and that Morrison had sucked dry of morale.
But the rest, and the rest numbered most of the population, had been offended or hurt by Morrison in one way or another. And they worked him out just as they had worked out Howard in 2007. That working out took much longer but eventually the man who did not take his own advice lost a country and his seat. (It's amazing the Liberals still stagger him out on the campaign trail as if he were a national hero.)
The forgoing matters are all notable but it is my belief that the biggest story from this 2022 election is the fracturing of Australia’s two-party system of government, something that so far a discredited media (which during this election displayed a slovenly bias that voters saw through) hasn’t fully comprehended.
The fracturing first began with Labor maybe 30 years ago. Since that time Labor has been fighting against a slump in its primary vote to the low 30% range, usually considered to be inconsistent with winning office in Australia's preferential voting system. But Labor won twice in that period, propped up by the reliable receipt of 80% of Greens’ preferences.
By contrast, until recently, the Coalition’s primary vote hung around the mid to low 40% zone. It usually went into elections with a big primary vote advantage over Labor. But for the last 18 months or so, the opinion polls had consistently shown that the Liberals primary vote had fallen from the 40s to the mid-30s or worse.
It was this which made me certain Labor would win on Saturday even though Albanese underperformed during the campaign. He was up against an unpopular man whose maladministration, cheered on by the media, had caused his party’s primary vote to fall somewhere near that of his opponent.
So Labor and the Tories now have only about one-third of the primary vote each. For many years the dominance of an informal ‘two-party system’ gave them no cause for concern. But election after election, independents and minor parties gnawed at their support. The Others' vote climbed steadily for 20 or more years. And now, in 2022, well organised Greens and Independents grabbed much of the remaining one-third, most of it at the Liberals’ cost.
And this time, the solidity of that other one-third of votes was determined by the emergence of centrist women Independents who collapsed the Libs primary vote. But unlike previously, when well-financed major parties always seemed capable of fighting back, this time the two-party oligopoly was under the pump and the Liberals were busted wide open.
I’m not sure anything can be done to regain the lost one-third. Labor might see its share increase somewhat if it can deliver capable government. But the Liberals are the people with big problems. They face an existential crisis, which one would think might be addressed by repossessing and consolidating Robert Menzies’ ‘broad church’ of the centre right.
But instead the move is on to spin Peter Dutton into the Opposition Leader's job. This surly, unpopular former policeman looks like continuing to push the party to the more extreme right. This is where their Nationals coalition partner is already squatting under the beetroot leadership of Barnaby Joyce. The farmers party have now become the resource extractors party and miraculously retained all of their 16 seats on Saturday.
It could be that the Libs and Nats will be compelled to amalgamate in an effort to strengthen their joint one-third of the primary vote. But even though this may offer more internal stability, I an not sure how a ‘further right’ party would survive. I do struggle to understand this Republican-like obeisance amongst the Australian conservatives. Extremes of anything are not where Australians sit and certainly extreme conservatism is not what Australians want. This showed again at the weekend. Australians are right leaning centrists.
There are many lessons from Saturday: one is that now there are three forces in Australian politics: Labor centre-left; Greens left and Independents centre-right; and Liberals right and still moving towards the fringe. Australians are a people of the centre. If you still don’t believe me look more closely at what the Teal Independents just did the other day.
I disagree totally with a growing view on the right (and in the media which is the same thing) that the Teal Independents are a self-righteous, entitled group of women in the clammy fingers of a rich Rasputin by name of Simon Holmes a Court who established the Climate 200 organisation to raise funds “to support political candidates committed to a science-based approach to climate change and to restoring integrity in politics”. Young Hacca has been at pains to explain that this does not give him policy or other control over the Independents that Climate 200 elected to support.
Of course, the media sees this differently and tells us, with no evidence, that Climate 200 is a political group that has infiltrated the political firmament under the guise of being independent. The Australian Electoral Commission has formally repudiated this view. But the media still squeals that Holmes a Court seeks to influence parliamentarians using the weight of money, which of course is what the big corporates do themselves, especially Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Murdoch seems to think that everyone else with money would choose to behave with the same unethical abandon that he does.
I see no sign beyond this wild newspaper talk that Holmes a Court is doing what he is alleged to be doing. That is, pulling the strings and causing the Teal marionettes to dance. These admirable women, who stood and won as independents and who were supported by Climate 200 and very many others, stood on the platform of wanting an honest political system, climate action and a fair go for women. These are noble and necessary causes. They are not sinister.
A friend of mine, extraordinarily concerned by this new tri-focalised Australian politics, referred to the Teal Independents as “self-righteous chancers (entitled white females?) riding on the coat tails and wallet of a very wealthy, self-important, ‘I don’t give a f… about you’, entitled white male”.
I told my friend that such sentiments traduced women who had been drawn to politics by the failure of government to address its own inadequacies, including corruption and irrationality on climate change.
The strategy of the mostly conservative leaning Teal Independents was game and idealistic. To stand in heartland Liberal seats, the toughest for anyone not a Liberal to win, and shake them free. As things turned out, these laudable women were successful beyond all expectations.
They took seven seats held by fake moderate Liberals, who had in parliament voted for a range of evils visited upon refugees, Indigenous Australians, the economically deprived they despise, corruption, climate change and more. Weep not for them…. They are deserving losers and Menzies would have held them in contempt.
Australia has been poorly governed for too long. Under Howard, the Liberal Party developed some very bad habits about ridding the party of moderates (I reference Ian Macphee, Petro Georgiou and others), under Tony Abbott further bad habits about tearing up fine legislation brought to life by their predecessors, and under Scomo in Trumpian mode even further bad habits about the power of the never-ending lie, the never-look-backwards lie and the never-corrected lie.
Australians don’t dig deeply into the mechanics and psychology of political behaviour. But we are straightforward people who sniff out inauthenticity and bullshit pretty quickly, tolerate it up to a point but, if pushed too far know, we know how to sideline the bullshitters, lop the tall poppies and cut smartarses down to size.
That the ‘old system’ seems to be fracturing is of no concern to me. It was taking Australia to a place where we would be worse off – economically, socially and democratically. The success of the ‘third force’ opens up new opportunities for egalitarianism to shine and economic activity to be energised. And Morrison has been ejected just in time to spare us further of his and his party’s mendacity and excessive behaviour. Now the political system must be recalibrated to make deceit and theft punishable not commonplace.
As we move into an era of extremes in terms of environment, disease and global politics, Australians need the safety of a solid, mature, equable and equitable society. We need to protect democratic values, not see them thrown aside by a neoliberal caste which has never stated, but by its actions clearly shown, that the two party state is fine so long as one of the parties never gets to govern. But feels that a right wing autocracy would be better.
Saturday gave us a fascinating election with a necessary outcome. There is so much in it to ponder. I’ve just begun the process.
I want our country and its people to be safe, prosperous and good international citizens. I want Albanese to gain confidence in his role and to spread the burden of leadership across ministers selected because of talent not faction.
Albanese will be a better prime minister than Morrison, an easy thing to be given the latter’s appalling track record. Albanese will govern more fairly and, if he exercises democracy and wisdom in the cabinet room, we will have the best government we can have. And nobody can hope for anything more than that.